Princely tomb raised from Terracotta Warrior mausoleum complex

A massive tomb weighing 16 tons has been raised from a deep pit in the mausoleum complex of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China whose tomb is famously garrisoned by an army of life-sized terracotta warriors 6,000 strong. The coffin was found to contain very rich funerary deposits, including weapons, armor, jade, a pair of gold and silver camels, a set of cooking utensils and 6,000 bronze coins. With such a grand burial, the deceased must have been a warrior of high rank, perhaps even one of the sons of the Qin Emperor.

Covering an area of 22 square miles, Qin Shi Huang’s tomb is the largest mausoleum in the world and much of it has yet to be excavated out of concern for exposing it to damage from seismic activity, the elements and looters. A 2010 excavation focused on the foundations of the tomb, and uncovered a massive palace with 18 courtyard-style homes around a central building. It is a quarter of the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing, and is considered its conceptual progenitor, albeit this one was meant for the emperor to inhabit after his death.

That excavation also unearthed nine tombs in 2011. Their large coffins were left in place in keeping with the Chinese government’s hands-off policy as regards the mausoleum and its contents. Archaeologists returned this year to recover the coffin after it was threatened by heavy rain. It was excavated and removed for further study and examination of the contents in a controlled environment.

Archaeologists are hoping to find clues about the owner of the tomb. The current hypothesis is that it may belong to Prince Gao, one of 50 children of Qin Shi Huang, whose burial in the mausoleum is recorded in the Records of the Grand Historian (also known as the Shiji), the epic history of China begun by Sima Tan, Grand Scribe of the Han dynasty, in the late 2nd century B.C. and completed by his son and successor Sima Quian around 91 B.C.

According to the Shiji, after Qin Shi Huang’s death, his youngest son Hu Hai took the throne after killing all his competitors. Prince Gao told his brother that he regretted not voluntarily following his father into the afterlife, and asked that he be killed and buried in the great mausoleum. Hu Hai was glad to oblige.

The story of Prince Gao could be entirely fictional. The Shiji is a chronicle, but like Livy’s Ab urbe condita, it treats legend and tradition as indistinguishable from fact. The biographies of emperors begins with the legendary Yellow Emperor, and while Qin Shi Huang died in 210 B.C., only about 100 years before Sima Tan began writing the Records, the Shiji makes all kinds of outlandish claims even about Qin’s comparatively recent reign. However, some of those outlandish claims have already surprised archaeologists by having more than a kernel of truth. For example, the Shiji describes the mausoleum as having “100 rivers of mercury” flowing through it. Soil testing found levels of mercury 100 times higher than normal, so maybe the 100 rivers thing was an overstatement, but it was not a complete fabrication.

“After the first emperor died, his sons all came to a bad end, so I’m still more inclined to believe that this tomb belongs to a high-ranking nobleman or army chief,” Jiang Wenxiao, the excavation leader, said.

Wenxiao added: “The tomb was so precisely built. So deep, so large in scale. Most ancient tombs have been robbed so we didn’t have much hope for the coffin chamber. But it turned out it hadn’t been robbed. We were amazed.”

The discovery has been filmed by a British-Chinese co-production which was granted unprecedented access to the mausoleum site and the active excavation. The finds will be the focus of the Mysteries of the Terracotta Warriors which debuts on Netflix on June 12th.